Without being cruel, it’s a worry that the Housing minister, Caroline Flint – the woman put in charge of dumping 10 new eco-towns all over rural England – can’t even sort out her notes for a Cabinet meeting so they aren’t visible to the press.
Some commentators have speculated that allowing the public this sneak preview was a crude attempt to deflect attention from the real news of the day, the Government’s astonishing piece of footwork on 10p tax, surely worthy of any episode of Strictly Come Dancing. Sadly, I don’t think that Ms Flint is capable of that degree of sophistication – her ill-advised plans to continue regardless with the roll-out of eco-towns is another guaranteed vote-loser for the Government.
Last Monday, councillors in Stratford-upon-Avon unanimously voted to reject a plan to build an eco-town of 6,000 homes for up to 20,000 people at the village of Middle Quinton. The Government plans to fast-track the building of five towns by 2013, but all over England local communities in the areas designated are marshalling the support of thousands of protesters.
Like a rural version of the poll tax, this issue will really unite people. Personally, I can’t get my head around the contradiction of calling a new town which is built on a greenfield site eco-friendly, because the one thing it does is damage the environment, by con-creting over fields and introducing cars and pollution where there were none before.
Every eco-town, no matter how many wind turbines, wood-chip boilers, solar panels and low-energy light bulbs it might have within its environs, will also – regardless of what anyone waffles on about cycles lanes – include roads and parking spaces. Roads to take people from their little well-insulated boxes with garages, to shops, to schools, to stations, and to other, better-appointed and more culturally productive bigger towns nearby.
Caroline Flint’s leaked memo reveals that the Government is clearly worried about the impact of the downturn in house prices and the rising costs of mortgages in the long term. Even if one eco-town was built, who can predict if anyone could afford to live in it if the current crisis continues?
The success of television programmes like Grand Designs demonstrates that a huge number of us are really interested in home improvements – surely it would be far more environmentally friendly for the Government to come up with radical solutions to restore and extend existing housing stock, rather than impose these sterile communities on rural England?
In west Sussex, for example, where an eco-town of more than 5,000 homes is planned for Ford, situated between Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, a better solution to the problem of affordable housing would be to put the resources into developing the existing run-down seaside communities. There are plenty of brownfield sites within them suitable for low-cost accommodation, in areas already served by public transport, with schools, hospitals, libraries and shops.
Notwithstanding Gordon Brown’s announcement in his draft Queen’s speech yesterday that the Government would buy up unsold new-build developments and turn them into social housing, in the south-east every piece of green land is precious.
Building new towns is macho politics, and our track record in this area is lamentable. With all the will in the world, I can’t see that Caroline Flint has the balls to stand up to her bosses in Government and tell them that it’s not the way out of a housing crisis. She should be thinking small.
15 May 2008
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